Earth on Fire: Free trade and the climate crisis

We are at war with the earth.

The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide stands above 400 parts per million, likely the highest level in the past 20 million years. Oceans are acidifying so intensely and so rapidly that scientists warn that coral reefs will probably disappear within the next 25 years. In 2014, researchers discovered that as a result of our combustion of fossil fuels, the Southern Ocean had begun to swallow the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which contains enough water to wipe out coastal cities like Miami, Venice and Amsterdam.

Why do we treat the planet with such blatant disregard? What has caused us to fail so miserably to adequately address the increasing threat of climate change?

Contemporary environmentalists have sought to answer these questions for generations, and increasingly they have made the connection between the implementation of free trade agreements and the dramatic rise of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Take any introductory economics class and you’ll learn that economic actors trade with one another because of comparative advantages, which allow them to produce particular goods and services more efficiently than their counterparts. This theory explains why high-tech companies concentrate in highly educated areas like Silicon Valley and why agricultural firms grow corn and soybeans in the fertile soil of Iowa and Nebraska.

Free trade agreements follow the same logic: certain countries can produce products like cars, clothing and beauty products much more inexpensively than others. By removing barriers to competition, consumers across the world can maximize their well-being by having access to cheaper goods. Arguments like these catalyzed the passage of the highly controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and animate supporters of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

But as award-winning author Naomi Klein notes in “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” open markets have shifted emissions and ecological degradation away from the developed world and toward poorer countries like China and Mexico. Their capital able to flow more freely, multinational corporations have moved their factories from countries that have relatively stringent environmental, health and labor standards, like France, toward those that do not.

Thus, companies moved to Mexico from Canada and the United States after the implementation of NAFTA not because Mexicans are more skilled or educated than their North American counterparts, but because companies can pay Mexican workers terrible wages and release great quantities of pollutants into the environment without fear of government fines. So while Americans may spend less on t-shirts and electronic goods as countries have progressively removed barriers to trade, this has come at an enormous cost for both environment and human health.

In theory, trade fosters more efficient production. But in practice, industrialized nations have simply shifted the dirtier sectors of their economy to developing countries — where the same production has a far greater carbon footprint.

As we consider new agreements, we must ensure that all accords we sign contain rigorous environmental standards. The health of the planet depends on it.